In my last article, I talked a bit about why roleplaying game campaigns make horrible novels. Now, I’m going to look at elements of roleplaying games that actually map to novels rather well, and how these ideas can be incorporated into fiction.
Roleplaying games are systematized. In order for the game to work, there must be rules for everything, including magic. This means that the magic system is strictly rules-based and therefore consistent with itself.
One common problem with writing magic systems is that it’s easy to lose track of what the magic can and cannot do, and to adjust the capabilities of magic as the plot demands. If things look too easy, the magical Sword of Confusing Vagueness suddenly stops working to add false difficulty. If the characters are in a pinch with no way out, it begins dealing double damage and shooting lightning bolts.
Rule-based magic stops this from happening. Sticking to a set of rules forces your story to remain consistent. Consistency makes it easier for readers to understand your magic system and to pick up on the underlying patterns, which means you get to spend less time on explaining away glitches in the magic and more time using it to do badass plot advancement. Consistency allows also makes it easier to set up fair mysteries and well executed plot-twists because the clues can be built into the system, and because readers are aware of the range of possibilities.
Stat your spells and magic items exactly as you would in an RPG. Know exactly what each thing is capable of doing before it enters the story, and what conditions must be met. Also know if there are any exceptions to the rules. You should know how much extra damage the magic item does, what magic armor defends against, how enchantment works, and what the failure chance is for spells. Each spell should have a set range of effects.
Even in systems with relatively wild magic where the characters do not know the rules, you as the writer should understand the limits and metaphysics of the system.
The GM needs to know how far apart towns are, whether the party’s archer has line of sight, and where exactly the monsters are relative to the players. Nine times out of ten, the players need this information as well. This means that there are a lot of maps.
Maps are beautiful. They let you work out the lay of the land and figure out exactly where everything is. Having a fixed layout stops the setting from drifting and keeps the story firmly anchored in space. It also helps with plot details if the characters have to travel. I recommend making maps of both of large geographic areas (especially if your story is political) and buildings where the characters spend a lot of time.
Non-player characters (NPCs) are the characters in a roleplaying game who are controlled by the GM. They give out quests, aid the adventurers, keep inns, and the like. Some are heroes. Some are villains. But the point is that the player characters aren’t wandering around an empty world.
There is such a thing as having too few characters in a novel. When this happens, it appears that the whole world is run by six or seven people and everyone is related. Or the main characters do literally everything on their own with no reinforcements. For larger worlds, this looks pretty silly.
In fiction, NPCs are a good way of plugging in minor recurring characters who populate the world and facilitate the story. They can give the world flavor and have colorful personalities, but they also don’t need to be intensely well developed or burdened with long backstories. The caveat here is that fiction tends to be a bit fluid, and it isn’t uncommon for a secondary character to ascend to main character status. Including NPCs doesn’t mean writing cardboard cutouts with no room for growth. It means remembering to fill the tavern with people.
There are a lot of tired archetypes in tabletop games that don’t do well in novels. Most people don’t care to read about the wise wizard or the noble paladin. But the one thing that roleplaying games get right about characterization is team balance. The way that the class system is set up in a lot of games the different character builds are made to compliment each other.
This means that, unless the players are intentionally trying to buck the system, you don’t usually end up with a team of five strength fighters who can’t solve a riddle, a group full of wizards who can’t take a hit, or, heavens forbid, a roving pack of bards who can’t do anything at all. The structure of the game encourages players to create a balanced team of characters with diverse skill sets.
In fiction, it’s not uncommon for authors to find themselves creating an abundance of similar characters—most people have a few traits or archetypes that they’re attached to, and that tend to crop up in their work as a result. This is good and well until you find yourself staring down half a dozen sarcastic witches or buff action bros, at which point the characters become redundant.
Consider what your main character’s mission is, and what kind of team they need to accomplish it. Then figure out what sort of characters you need to fill those roles, and what each character does better than anyone else. Know how the team compliments one another, and why each member is necessary. This will also help you figure out if there are multiple characters trying to play the same part, who may be better off rolled into one.
Writing like a boss:
Tabletop roleplaying games, whether novel-worthy or not, are a method of collective storytelling. They are another way to get yourself thinking creatively, solving problems, and generating ideas. Whether or not you plan to novel your campaign, anything that kickstarts your imagination is a positive influence on your writing.